If the Charity Commission asks for your charity’s money, here are some relevant Trustees’ duties

Trustees should look at all proposals for spending their money – including proposals from the Charity Commission itself – in accordance with the duties of Trustees as set out by the Charity Commission.

The Charity Commission’s Chief Executive has made clear that the Commission intends to consult the sector about a levy on larger charities to pay for some of the softer side of regulation such as advice and, according to Civil Society News, for enabling schemes and permissions. A figure of £7 million per year has been mentioned.

I have challenged the rationale for this proposal elsewhere (“Should Charities Pay for Charity Commission’s advice?”, 13 January 2018, and “Paying for the Regulator: why the charity sector is not like all the others”, 2 August 2017. ). I now want to remind Trustees – in particular those of larger charities who would pay the levy – of relevant guidance from the Commission about their duties as they consider their response. It is all taken from The Essential Trustee.

“You and your co-trustees must make sure the charity is carrying out the purposes for which is is set up, and no other purposes.” (my italics).   So if someone asks you to fund a different purpose, however admirable, which is not part of your charitable objects and does not advance or support them, you must say no. Expenditure which does not meet these criteria would be a breach of your Trustee duties.

“You must make sure the charity’s assets are only used to support or carry out its purposes”. Hence it is not permissible to choose to spend part of your assets on something that does not support or carry out your purposes. Even more pointedly:

“You must do what you and your co-trustees (and no-one else) decide will best enable the charity to carry out its purposes” (my italics). So if there is in the view of your Board, and no-one else, a better way of spending the money for the long term good of your cause, you should not willingly spend it on a worse option.

These are some of the key considerations which Trustees “must” (not just should) have in mind, according to the Commission. They subsume issues of trust and obligation when it comes to donors who give their money for a particular charitable purpose. You have to be able to look into their eyes and tell them that you are using their donations for your chosen cause in the best way you can.

You will want to address the argument that, if the Commission is better able to do preventive work, the reputation of charity in general, including your charity, will be better protected.

So, for example, if you are a Trustee of a major children’s organisation, is a levy to the Charity Commission clearly a means of supporting your mission to children? More than that, is it the best available way of spending that money for that purpose? The same question applies to the cancer charities, those for disabled people, overseas aid, medical, Arts, museums, the environment, human rights and all the rest. Your duties are to pursue your charitable objectives exclusively, not other charities’ purposes nor the regulator’s purposes nor any political purpose unless it is in support of your own particular charitable objects.

For many years, regulation has been correctly understood as a balanced mix of preventive, awareness raising and corrective activity. Such regulation has been seen as for the benefit of society as a whole, and hence a claim on the public purse.

It is only relatively recently that the Commission’s Board under William Shawcross colluded with the simplistic notion that the “essential” role of the Commission was to be a “policeman”, setting up the scenario where Government says it will pay only for compliance and investigation. It is also only relatively recently that the budget of the Commission has been slashed as part of austerity economics. Despite that, the relevant Government Department (DCMS) now spends many multiples of £7 million on the National Citizenship Service which has not done too well at the hands of the National Audit Office, but says it cannot find an extra £7 million for the better regulation of the entire charity sector. This is just one example of priorities for the public purse that are open to challenge.

Trustees must ask themselves if these are immutable and permanent facts of life, or whether they might change. They should also ask whether, if they were to declare their charities willing to pay for some of the Commission’s regulation, these “facts” would indeed become immutable and permanent even if they were not so before.

Many Trustees of large charities will remember life not so long ago, when the Charity Commission’s budget was roughly twice its present size of £20 million. Was this so much better and so important to the effective pursuit of their charity’s purposes that it justifies the expenditure of some of their own charitable funds now, as a priority, in order to enable the Commission to do some of what it was previously paid to do via public expenditure? Much of this advice, these permissions and schemes will apply to a myriad of charities with completely different purposes, geographical scope and beneficiary groups from theirs. It may be an excellent purpose to provide such advice but is it their charitable purpose to pay for it?

The duties of Trustees as defined above by the Commission will require some careful, clear and tough analysis by the Trustees if the proposal that their charitable funds should pay for advice work by the Commission is embraced by the new Chair of the Commission and finally goes out to consultation.

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